Judy Tan

There’s No Such Thing as a Stupid Question

As a straddle the worlds of teaching students, working with CEOs and their teams, and studying the psychology of aging, I am amazed at how more-or-less the same issues appear in all of them. The power of questions is one example.

Discovery requires being curious and asking questions.  We begin our lives as children unfettered when it comes to asking questions: Why is the sky blue?  etc. As we get older, schools and other socializing institutions ty to reduce the number of questions we ask. One seventh grade teacher had students put on their desk a note saying “Is this a stupid question?” as a way of limiting questions in class (He was a science teacher!)  As I teach university students in the US and China, I increasingly see a few students who ask almost all the questions and the rest shying away from doing so.

In companies, I experience newer (and younger) workers often refraining from asking questions. Asked why, some respond that they don’t want to “look stupid”, even though they concede that without the critical information they may make a (stupid) mistake. As I work with people 60+ through Age Brilliantly, including the “elderly” (over 85) the pattern of not raising questions continues for many.

Yet, in all cases, asking appropriate questions can save people time and energy, and have positive effects. Indeed, Meika Loe, who researched the “oldest old” (over 85) in Aging Our Way, notes a key lesson she learned: asking for help enables autonomy and control – as long as it’s on the (asker’s) terms.”

We need to change the culture our hour homes, schools, workplaces, etc. to encourage people to ask appropriate questions more often because they empower people to make better decisions, do better work, and feel more confident about themselves.  In my office we have a note saying “there is no such thing as a stupid question!”  We celebrate breakthroughs that come from a good question asked to encourage more of them. But it’s not enough.

What are you doing to create cultures to encourage people to ask more and better questions?  Share your experiences and ideas.

How to Retain Your Creative Edge in this “Busy” World

With all the interruptions we encounter in life – multiple job roles – 24/7 access, “finish it now”  deadline, it’s hard to retain a creative perspective when we look at the things that lead to innovations – annoyances we want to overcome, blue ocean opportunities, etc.  In Too Fast To Think: How to Reclaim Your Creativity in a Hyper-Connected Work Culture, Chris Lewis offers some potential solutions. Let me share a few activities you should follow:

  • Read more – it breaks the normal routine, opens you to new ideas, and gives you respect for people
  • Get out more – we spend too much time in the “boxes” of work and then home, and not enough being exposed to the things that stimulate ideas. I work with a  number of top college graduates who are recruited for their intelligence and creativity and then take jobs at which they work 18= hours a day 6-7 days a week. That produces burnout.
  • Realize the paradox – while we want people to get creative at work, most creative ideas originated outside.
  • Be present – multi-tasking eliminates the ability to see the contradictions within a single concept, which when analyzed with time, can lead to a creative insight
  • Speed isn’t always good – creativity comes from incubating contradictions and paradoxes. Slow is smooth and leads to the better, faster solutions
  • Get enough sleep – research shows the importance sufficient sleep to do quality work and stay creative. It’s amazing that so many (big) companies abuse their new hires with 18 hour days, and take pride in it.
  • Value the power of silence – to give you the creative space you need.

And here are a few creative traits that facilitate success:

  • Quiet – get rid of the noise and clutter to experience sounds, smell and touch that concentration brings
  • Focus – take time to listen, believe in yourself, and the process.
  • Unleash your imagination – encourage daydreaming of alternatives
  • Play – relax from work, release the stress and play with the ideas. You must enjoy the creative process..
  • Teach – the best way to know what you’re learning is to try to teach it.  It’s one of the reasons that I offer public speeches and workshops on new areas of interest to me – because it forces me to organize it so that someone else can clearly understand it – and challenge my assumptions if they deserve it!

What are you doing to maintain your creative edge?  One of the interesting findings about aging is that creativity doesn’t necessarily decline while we get older. That’s probably another reason that one of the largest group of entrepreneurs today are people who are “retiring” for their older jobs. Share with how you maintain your creative edge and what you plan to do next!

EQ vs Technical Skills: What Really Matters for Career Advancement

Recently, Google decided to data-mine their own employee reviews and promotions to identify what factors got people promoted to leadership roles within the company. While Google has a reputation for hiring and promoting based on technical expertise, the results surprised them.

They determined eight skills that the promoted managers possessed that others did not. Listed in rank order, they are:

  1. Coach your team members well.
  2. Lead your team without micromanaging them.
  3. Take an interest in team members’ success.
  4. Focus on results.
  5. Be a good listener and communicator.
  6. Focus on career development for your employees.
  7. Develop a strategy for your team.
  8. Possess technical skills to advise your team when needed.

Three are skills:  #8 is a technical, #7 is strategic, and #4 is tactical execution.

Five (#1, #2, #3, #5, and #6) are people-management and emotional intelligence (EQ) type skills.

In other words, it seems that Google hires for technical IQ type talent, but promotes for EQ oriented skills.

Experience with the CEOs I work with who have technical staff suggests that this is true for many organizations. To lead a team of engineers, you don’t have to be more brilliant than everyone else. You need enough technical knowledge to hire the right people and to ask the right questions. After that, executive effectiveness depends on listening (skill #5) to your smartest engineers and developing rising stars and helping them manage teams of their own (skills 1, 2, and 3). In other words, you need to be a coaching leader. And it you want to expand and take on more projects, you need to give your rising stars a path to upward mobility – which means training them to also be coaching leaders. The more sub-projects they can manage, the more effective you become in creating a profitable, growing company

It’s one of the reasons our Vistage CEOs this year are focusing on creating performance –driven job descriptions with measurable KPIs, understanding people’s Culture Index scores and learning more about how to measure leadership skills.  What’s your experience with EQ when it comes to career advancement and corporate growth? Share them with us!

It’s Time to Shift to Blue Ocean Strategy

When you develop a strategy for a new venture, expand or change an existing company, do you adopt a Red Ocean or Blue Ocean strategy? If you’re not familiar with the terms, let me explain.  

In 2005, Kim and Mauborgne, professors at INSEAD, introduced the distinction in Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant. Michael Porter , a Harvard professor, originated the 5 Forces model to describe how a company develops strategy, noting that one was rivalry of incumbents. They fight over similar clients with similar weapons (e.g., airlines today increasingly compete on price, times and fewer amenities).  When they compete, they sometimes end up in a “bloody” war – turning the ocean “red”.  Kim and Mauborgne, suggest thinking “outside the box” and focus on customers who might not yet be served with new products that are neither lower priced (e.g., discount vs. full-serve airlines) or product “richer” (Mercedes Benz vs. Buick), but rather rethink the value offering to include some of both (e.g., iTunes, Smart Phones). For instance, after hundreds of years of circuses with animals and clowns that serve children and their parents, Cirque du Soleil, developed a completely different kind of “circus entertainment” for adults. In the world of billboard outdoor advertising, with limited options and limited impact, JCDecaux created “street furniture”, such as bus shelters with moving ads, to offer more cost-effective outdoor advertising.

As an innovation advocate, I provide workshops (through Vistage and Presentation Excellence Group) to help participants unleash their creativity for product, process and new market innovations, as well as help companies forge cultures to spur the ongoing adoption of innovations. Accordingly, I invited a speaker to discuss the concepts in the book with my Vistage CEOs at Board meeting.

Now, the authors have advanced their model to help more companies develop Blue Ocean strategies.   In Blue Ocean Shift: Beyond Competing, they provide a set of tools that can be used to go after these opportunities and share more examples. For instance, the Four Actions Framework allows you to break the traditional trade-off between product differentiation and lower cost by listening to customers and non-customers who help you work through four questions:

  • Which factors that the industry takes for granted can be eliminated?
  • Which factors should be reduced below the industry’s standard?
  • Which factors should be raised well above the industry standard?
  • Which factors that the industry never offered should be created?

One example of a company that adopted the Blue Ocean strategy is citizenM, which created the new market space of affordable hotels – which offer the features of a 5-star hotel for 3-Star prices. Focused on the needs of today’s business travelers, they discovered that these customers did not value traditional hotel’s extra lobby space, personnel to run it, and food services,  but did value location, quick check-ins using kiosks and phones, high quality sleeping environment, and unique, compelling communal living spaces.  The result is a new, growing chain of hotels with high occupancy.

If you’re open to expanding your product line and market reach by rethinking industry’s approach to serving customers, which often takes “pain” for granted (e.g., standing in the rain for a taxi vs. Uber-type services), read the book!  Then share your thoughts and experiences.

(If you want your company to adopt the Blue Ocean Shift framework and forge new product and services, and/or enter new markets, we’ll be providing hands-on workshops starting in 2018!)

This is an interactive workshop, called “How to Capture and Capitalize on ‘Blue Ocean’ Opportunities” is designed so participants leave with a plan-outline. We’re offering it to Vistage groups, Association and corporations who have conferences focused on creativity and innovation, etc. Interested? Sign up here.

Does Your Culture Foster Innovation?

We hear often about how companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft are generating innovations, especially regarding artificial intelligence, through their corporate R&D departments. What lessons can smaller companies like ours learn from them?

Recently, Dr. Ishak, Chief Technologist for Corning Research & Development Corporation reflected on this question in McKinsey Quarterly (Sept, 2017) and identified a number of “less intuitive” ideas based on his 40 year experience. They include:

  • Practice “innovation parenting”. Innovation leaders should ground creative people in accountability for the organization’s objectives, key focus areas, core capabilities and stakeholders. Then give them broad discretion within these parameters. Obsessing too much on budgets and deadlines often kills ideas before they get off the ground. In addition, pay attention to innovator’s social development. Millennials, especially, expect and seek out opportunities to interact with people who interest and excite them; these exchanges build innovation energy.  Encourage relationships with colleagues in the internal innovation chain, from manufacturing to marketing and distribution; this helps them overcome the assumption that they must do everything. The result is that it reduces wasted effort and inspires burst of collaborative creativity.
  • Open up organizational space. Facilitate people to bypass barriers and hierarchies that often sap creativity and identify outside-the-box resources.
  • Encourage the unreasonable. While companies value unconventional thinking, cultures trend to reinforce tradition. Assure brainstorming participants that there are no bad ideas and encourage outside-the-box approaches. Challenge assumptions about products and markets; engage in scenario planning in which competitors challenge your strengths, and force you to rethink what you’re doing and up-your-game.
  • Stay focused. Taking on too many projects, because only one will be “boring” leads to a lack of ownership and commitment. Concentrate on a primary, immersive project, with the possibility of shifting gears to the other if the first hits a temporary roadblock.
  • Cultivate external relationships. Today many companies are feeding their innovation pipelines by partnering with external companies, including star-ups, national labs, universities, business accelerators, etc.. Allowing the internal and external partners to interact leads to greater achievements, as it did for Corning: bend-resistant optical fibers and Gorilla Glass.
  • Hire the best and do it fast. As with other parts of the business, identifying recruiting and retaining innovators and visionaries is a big challenge. Always be looking for great people!

What do you think?   What’s your experience in creating an innovative culture. Share with us.

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